All That is Solid
by Rick Hancox
My creative work is usually manifested in the form of short, poetic 16mm films that are shown in art galleries and museums, at film festivals and conferences, university film courses, and sometimes on public television. Most of my work has been either directly or indirectly autobiographical, generally referred to as experimental or personal documentary. I am interested in how the cinematic apparatus seems to privilege themes of time, personal memory and history, and the ways in which these intersect on the screen with the cinema’s ability to render space with apparent realism. I have been especially interested in how personal identity emerges through cinematic time and space as a result of the dialectic between nation and individual – particularly in Canada.
While my filmmaking in the 1990’s was concerned with these issues, in the last six years years I have expanded my work to include video, still photography, and publication of critical writing on cinema. Candid Eyes, a recent University of Toronto Press anthology on Canadian documentary, edited by Jeanette Sloniowski and Jim Leach, contains an opening chapter by myself – “Geography and Myth in Paul Tomkowicz: Coordinates of National Identity.” Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman, was a classic ‘Unit B’ NFB short released in 1954. I’ve done other work on space and place published in the last few years, and taught courses exploring intersections of these with history and personal memory, particularly within the context of the Canadian documentary film tradition. Currently I’m teaching a course I’ve entitled “Film, Time and Memory” for the MA in Media Studies program at Concordia University. But when my father died four years ago, reminding me of course of my own mortality, I started to become more interested in metaphysical questions relating to cinema, and realized I must must re-engage my interests in experimental/personal filmmaking. I have broached
such questions before in my ‘poetry-film’ trilogy - Waterworx (1982), Landfall
(1983), and Beach Events (1885).
Since the mid-nineties I have been recording on 16mm film, 35mm stills, and digital video, images for possible use in what seemed like several smaller film
projects. This film and video work centred on revisiting locations of earlier films and examining family history on my father’s side, among other things. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000, I tried to shift some of my film work towards an account of his illness. Perhaps as a reaction to his deteriorating condition, possibly a form of therapy, I began taking hundreds of still photographs using nothing but disposable cameras. Working with the technical limitations this presented (fixed-focus, wide angle lenses, no control over shutter speed, etc.) I developed a certain aesthetic – a poetics of ‘disposability’ which spoke of the inherent contradiction between everything material (the camera and its earth-bound subjects) as being ultimately less permanent than the images themselves. This recalled what Marx had said about everything in the modernist enterprise being pregnant with its contrary – how “all that is solid melts into air.” One thinks in this context of the the World Trade Center, and with my father’s death not long after in the fall of 2001, the demise of things that once seemed solid pointed out certain commonalities in all my creative endeavours. This called for resolution under the title of one film, which became the project for which I am now seeking funding to complete.
All That is Solid is be an experimental documentary that will be 30-40 minutes in length, that explores notions of permanence as well as impermanence, exploiting the contradictions of the ephemeral and material, and the ways in which they are ‘pregnant’ with each other. Not the least of these contradictions are traditional film and photographic images, whose realism is illusionistic and hence absent, yet whose material support is present – i.e. the prints, as well as negatives from which they were made. While in many cases outliving their own referents, the fact that these photographic objects would eventually break down over time has been a major concern of archivists. But with the transfer of analog imagery to digital, the ephemeral can of course be reconstituted at any time, anywhere – rendered ‘solid’ again (and with no generation loss.) Contemporary audiences respond to this simulacra increasingly not just for sensual reasons, but because recorded images have amassed a weight of significance, a legitimacy that can be trusted because – digitally immaterial as they may be – at least they won’t ‘melt into air,’ like other things in their lives.
All That is Solid is a film that had its beginning in the winter of 2001, when my father had less than a year to live. He asked me to share the driving with him to Florida, so when my mother flew down a week later they would have a car (at which point I flew back.) I borrowed a Sony PD150 and used the opportunity to shoot something in case I might one day make a finished film. Parts of this trip are available in an 8 1/2 minute video sample I have created, but the final piece will be over three times as long and contain many other scenes, most of which have already been shot, including the following:
1. A memorial service filmed the summer after my father died.
2. More material shot when he and I were together in Florida.
3. Additional footage of me spreading my father’s ashes.
4. More shots of the man operating the crematorium (some of which appears in the 8-minute sample).
5. Archival footage from my earlier 16mm films in which my father appeared, including Home for Christmas (1978). In this film he dresses up as Santa Claus, and later when questioned about hosting all the people staying at his house, says: “It’s fabulous – I shudder to think of the day when I won’t be able to do that.”
6. Home movie footage of my father over the years I shot in S-8mm & analog video.
7. I have a video from the Government of Canada of the Governor General’s Award ceremony for 2002. Unfortunately my father died before he could receive this prestigious Award, so it only shows my mother accepting it on his behalf. I will consider using the footage if the right artistic context presents itself.
8. Old stills of my father from years ago, including when he was in the RCAF stationed in England during WW II (and when he trained here at Rockcliffe before going overseas.)
9. Numerous disposable camera pictures I shot around the time of his death – at the hospital, his house, in and around Charlottetown, and at the funeral home. (There was no funeral – he was cremated when he died in early December 2001, and there was just a memorial service in PEI the following summer.)
As I alluded to earlier, the death of one’s parent brings one face-to-face with his own mortality. In my case, it so happened that in 2003 I was told I might
have lung cancer myself, and after a series of X-rays and an MRI, finally learned there was in fact nothing there. I still have the detailed MRI scan on a DVD, and plan to incorporate that along with my feelings about – to use my doctor’s phrase – “dodging a bullet.” I should emphasize at this point the film will in no way be a rant, neither will it be a ponderous dirge. There’s actually several opportunities for ironic humour, or even slapstick , which is quite consistent with the tone of many of my personal documentaries. My father certainly enjoyed a good laugh, as one can see in the sample film of All That is Solid.
Currently I am at the point where I have most of the research and shooting
done, and about to begin post-production – which for me is the most important phase of the creative process. The type of films I make are often the result of spontaneous shooting, and require time for concepts to mature and for a synthesis to emerge. However there are still some scenes to to be shot (on video) in PEI – interviews mostly, with my father’s retired doctor, the nurses who looked after him during his last days, and my mother. I have about $1500 left from the Concordia grant which I can put towards this.
There is one more scene I may shoot on video in PEI, one that I’ve covered already using disposable still cameras. These stills comprise a scene that ends the sample of All That is Solid. The location is the old Canadian Air Force base in Summerside, one of many such bases built during WW II to train service personnel. While I mentioned that my father trained in Ottawa at the old Rockcliffe air base, I didn’t mention that Prince Edward Island’s only crematorium just so happens to be located on the old Summerside base. My father served in England for practically the entire War (where he met my mother,) and those years had a big part in shaping him. Further, regarding the word Solid, Dad was in a popular singing group during the War who called themselves The Solid Four. (There’s a picture of them in the project sample, and I’ll be adding some of their recorded music later). All of this is to explain why his cremation at an old air base will play a significant part in the final film.
In PEI nobody attends a cremation, so when I asked the funeral home Director where it was, he was surprised (but no more than I was in discovering its location.) When I arrived my father’s coffin was inside the small white building that was the crematorium. I waited in Dad’s old car until the crematorium operator showed up, around sundown. As I sat there listening to some of my father’s
1940’s big band tapes that were still in the glove compartment, it occurred to me everything happening might be more than coincidence. Carl Jung called meaningful chance ‘synchronicity’ – a consequence of the collective unconscious, and there will be more of my experiences with it revealed in the film.
Meaningful coincidence has in fact become a narrative device used in several Hollywood films of the past few years. It’s as if we can’t deal with existential alienation anymore and seek, in the cinema, a way to contain contingency. Perhaps we invest emotionally in the medium in the hope it can prove life has an underlying meaning after all. I would like to play with some of these notions in the structure of All That is Solid, shaping the film into a kind of palindrome (a device I used in a previous film, Landfall.) The memorial service would become the mid-point of the film, which would then turn back toward to beginning, as if my father were coming alive again. That's what movies of loved ones do – they bring them back to life, unlike photographs, whose stillness and silence only emphasize the fact they are dead. An aspect of of this palindrome structure then will create a tension of stills and moving images to reflexively underscore this phenomenon, and in some ways question beliefs we have about synchronicity.
All That is Solid will be an innovative work for several reasons. In addition to the formal structure just mentioned, I have been experimenting with sudden juxtapositions of temporally distant events along the timeline, as in the sample film. It has something to do with the theme of permanence and impermanence, what appears to be solid and that which is ephemeral – even spiritual (and possibly permanent.) Some of the resulting temporal disjunctures in the sample are a little shocking, but I think certain editorial innovations like this will be necessary .
In Brenda Longfellow’s essay on Philip Hoffman (a former student from my Sheridan College days, whose work has become a model for my own), entitled “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida,” she says in reference to his films, several of which are meditations on death, that apart from the “diminishing power” of religion, in the cinema “the personal, emotional, and philosophical content of death has barely begun to be addressed.” There’s a taboo of representing death
in our culture, Longfellow points out, and when it does appear it is “shrouded in a veil of prudery.” Some recent exceptions to this I have seen as part of my research for All That is Solid. Besides Hoffman’s What These Ashes Wanted (2001), about the death of his partner, Marion McMahon, they include Allan King’s Dying at Grace (2003), and The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, Patrick Collerton (2004), among others. These intimate and courageous films stand as inspirations in this relatively new area of cinematic expression.
All That is Solid - BIBLIOGRAPHY
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Penguin Books, 1988).
Burgoyne, Robert. “Memory, History and Digital Imagery in Contemporary Film,” in Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
Cousineau-Levine, Penny. Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).
Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002).
Draaisma, Douwe. Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Eng, David L., and Kazanjian, David (eds.) Loss: the Politics of Mourning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1984).
Longfellow, Brenda. “Philip Hoffman’s Camera Lucida,” in Mike Hoolboom and Karyn Sandlos (eds.) Landscape with Shipwreck: First Person Cinema and the Films of Philip Hoffman (Toronto: Images Festival of Independent Film and Video, Insomniac Press, 2001).
McQuire, Scott. Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera (London: Sage Publications, 1998).
Metz, Christian. “Photography and Fetish,” in Liz Wells (ed.), The Photography Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).
Sobchack, Vivian. “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol.9, no.4 (1994).